Margie Lew

Editor’s Note: Margie Lew was the 58th charter member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. She was the first editor of our News N’ Notes. Margie Lew worked for Los Angeles City Hall prior to retirement to Alhambra. This is from an interview with William Gow on November 23, 2021 by Zoom, and edited by Samuel Yee.

“Chinese Welcome”

We came down to L.A. in 1955. My husband, Albert, was working for Trader Vic’s restaurant, which had upscale restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland. That’s where he got his training. The idea was, if they were going to train you for this job, you had to move down to L.A. to the new Beverly Hilton. We stayed with my sister for about a month or so until we found a place. I had decided to look in the paper because I didn’t know anything about Los Angeles, the communities, or any of the other cities, and I saw this little ad for an upstairs flat; it said, “Chinese welcome.” In those days, being a Chinese girl, I was not too forward about things like that. I was a little bit intimidated. So when I saw that, I said, “Boy, I’m going to go right over there, because at least I’m welcomed.” At that time, you could not move into certain places, so we were lucky. We stayed there for a couple of years, and they were Chinese landlords. Their last name was Sam, which was quite a coincidence, because there are not too many Sams in the Chinese community, and my sister married a Sam. That was unusual.

While we were there, Albert started building our house. That was his idea, to build a home for us. Albert was working at night from 5:00 to midnight at Trader Vic’s, then he would drive around to see if there were any empty lots. Because we were not too familiar with the area, he went to a real estate man who handled lots. This man said, “I know a place where they would welcome Chinese people, and there’s a couple of empty vacant lots there.” So, he took Albert to this lot in El Sereno, which was kind of ugly-looking. It was on a slope, the kind that nobody wanted to build on. But Albert wanted it. Right away, when he looked at that lot, he already pictured the house there. We bought it. And you know how much it cost us? A huge sum of $1,800. We lived there until 1988, about thirty years.

Chuck Yee and Frank Kwan at Lang Station, 1976.

Serving the City

Albert started building our house in the summer of 1956, and we moved in in October of 1958. That’s how I started working at City Hall, because he had this plan made, and he had to go down to City Hall to get approval before he could start building. While we were in the elevator going up to the third floor, I saw a sign; it said, “Court typist wanted.” We had just moved down not too long ago, and my kids were both in school full-time, so I had decided then I was going to look for a job so I could help with the building and other expenses. And that very day, they said, “You come in and take your typing test and written test, and we’ll give you an interview.” And before I knew it, the person said to me, “Can you start next week?” I couldn’t believe it, because I had never been able to get a job that fast, especially being Chinese. In those days, it was very hard to get a job. When he asked me if I could start working next week, I had to ask him twice, “What did you say?”

I sure learned a lot in those thirty years I worked there. I didn’t know anything about City Hall – being brand new to Los Angeles, having lived in San Francisco all my life. I found out I was an emergency hire for the summer. At that time, they had ornamental city lights on the sidewalks, and they would charge for the lighting each month, depending on the width of your lot. All the street lighting bills went out, and they needed extra help to do all these checks. That’s how I got hired at an emergency job in the Bureau of Assessments, which is part of Public Works.

CHSSC Field Trip to San Francisco in 1986.

Finding a Home at the CHSSC

I heard about the CHSSC from a couple of my friends, Stan and Dora Lau. They were talking about a historical society where we could learn about the history of the Chinese in the United States and what they were doing all those years from the gold rush days. I looked up my old history book to see what it said about the Chinese in the U.S., and all it had was one line about the railroads. That’s all I knew. In school, they never taught anything about Chinese people in the United States. So, I was really, really excited. Everybody was very excited about it. I’d been wanting to learn something about the Chinese American pioneers but didn’t know where to look. It made me very happy that we finally were going to do something so that people would know about us.

The meeting was in the basement at Cathay Bank. There were many that were interested, and we just started talking about different things: what it’s going to be about, how we’re going to do it and so forth. The thing that I felt really good about is the brothers that helped us get started. There were four Yee brothers: George, Chuck, Johnny, and Bill. George was the oldest, and I believe he was the second president. They were so gung-ho about the Society. They were so happy to have something like this happen so that people would know about us as a group. They really worked hard. They gave everything to the Society. The Yee brothers and Stan Lau were the pushers.

After a few months of reading all the things that the Chinese accomplished, it made me feel very proud of being Chinese American. Living in San Francisco, it was a very prejudicial city. The Chinese people had to live within ten blocks, and they could not move beyond. So, we didn’t have a whole lot of contact with anybody else until we started going to junior high school. “It’s about time.” I said.

Editing and Excursions

Since we were going to establish this group, we had better let people know about it. We started News ‘N Notes. That was the monthly newsletter. I was the first editor, and it wasn’t something I had planned to do at all. I just thought about being a member and learning like everybody else. But somehow, Stan got me into it. He told me, “Well, you know this person wrote an article. I wonder if you could edit it to make it legible and see that the grammar and spelling was okay.” He knew I loved English. That was a part of my thing. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it for you.” And just like that, I got railroaded into it. Whatever members we had at that time, they would get a copy, and then they would tell their friends. That’s how we got bigger. I wrote most of the articles, but sometimes, I would ask people to write. I had to edit everything when people turned in articles, but most of them I had to research and write myself. Being an editor, I would give the members a chance to pick a title for these publications. I gave them a couple of months, but nobody came up with anything. “Okay. I’ll just do it myself.”

We also used to have a lot of field trips. That was one of the fun parts. I remember the first field trip we had was to the Lang Railroad Station, where the north and south trains were joined. We had a ceremony, and later on, they had a plaque made. That’s the one where March Fong Eu was there as a special guest.[1] And the trips were not just local: we went to San Diego; we went to Mexicali in Mexico; we went to San Luis Obispo. Almost every year, we would have a trip, and it was just so nice.

The most wonderful trip I ever went to was the one to Promontory Point, where the trains met on May 10th, 1869. I was so excited because I didn’t know anything about Promontory Point in Utah. One day, my fellow worker said to me, “Margie, you don’t know anything about Promontory Point?” I said, “No. What is that?” She said, “Well, that’s where the transcontinental trains met.” And I said, “Oh, I never knew anything about it.” She was Caucasian, and here I was Chinese and didn’t know anything about it. That was before we went on that trip, before I even heard about that transcontinental train program. She knew. She brought me the brochures and the program. And I said, “Well, where is that?” So, I had to learn from a Caucasian person about that. Isn’t that something?

One of the things that impressed me about Promontory Point was that, since 1869, every year that town would celebrate. They would dress up in those old-fashioned clothes, and they would have the two trains meet and have the ceremony. But, for many, many years, they never had a Chinese person be a speaker. And I read in the paper a few years back, they finally got this Chinese professor to be the main speaker. It was strange that they had never asked a Chinese person to speak before.

Words of Advice

I would tell people that America is made up of all these different groups. Studying about them helps you to realize that each group is a part of this country, and each group has contributed to this country. So not one group has done everything. We’re supposed to all be tolerant of each other, work together, help each other and get to be friends. That makes a better country. Right now, you have Black Americans, you have Brown Americans. If we’re going to live in this country and make it a great country, I think we should all try to work together.

I knew so little about Chinese American history, but I found out about all these people that were so intelligent in science and medicine and art and everything else. We are just like everybody else. There are good, very artistic people in every group. We need to appreciate and not downgrade each other’s accomplishments just because of their skin color or because there are things about them that you don’t understand. If we’re going to live in this country, we have to do that.

[1] March Kong Fong Eu (1922-2017) was the first Asian American and the first woman to be elected to the Secretary of State of California position. She served from 1975 to 1994. Eu was born in Oakdale and worked as a dental hygienist for Oakland Unified School District. She served the Alameda County Board of Education (1954-1964) and the California State Assembly (1966-1974).